On Responding to Abuse Allegations

On Responding to Abuse Allegations January 22, 2015

I write a lot about abuse scandals in conservative Christian circles, such as those involving Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard. But it occurs to me that should be willing to write about similar situations within progressive Christian circles as well. If I ignore problems in groups that agree with me while taking on problems in groups I disagree with, I have a double standard. But there’s another reason, too, that I want to write today about the current controversy surrounding Tony Jones, Rachel Held Evans, and other progressive Christian figures: I think we can learn from it.

It is incredibly easy to call out abuse and wrongdoing carried out by your opponent, but comparatively much harder to call out abuse and wrongdoing carried out by those in our own camp. We need to be careful that we do not fall prey to a tendency to call out the problems that occur in other groups while letting the problems that occur in our own groups slide. We need to make sure that we ourselves live up to the standard we use to judge our opponents.

Tony and Rachel are progressive Christian leaders prominent in what is sometimes referred to as “emergent” Christianity. They’re evangelical, except different—they support women’s equality, they support LGBT rights, and they call out spiritual abuse. They’re hip, they’re cool, and they create new church structures that seek to throw off problems of hierarchy and support new, communal ways of growing close to God.

Tony divorced his wife in 2009 and has since remarried. But his ex-wife Julie has recently begun speaking out and has made some very troubling accusations. For example, it is now known that Tony filed for divorce after cheating on Julie, and Julie alleges that Tony told her that she was only his “legal” wife and that the woman he had cheated on her with was his “spiritual” wife. Julie writes that Tony turned his friends and associates against her by portraying her as “batshit crazy.” She also writes that Tony and his pastor friends tried to have her committed to a mental hospital even though she was not (and is not) mentally ill, and that Tony was emotionally and physically abusive toward her.

From what Julie has written (you can read her comments in this comment thread), it sounds like after she found out about Tony’s affair, Tony and his pastor friends found a way to get rid of her and yet preserve Tony’s ministry by portraying her as crazy and by arguing that there was a distinction between a “legal” wife and a “spiritual” wife. I should clarify that I don’t have a problem with divorce. I understand that couples are sometimes ill-suited, and that when they are they may be better of splitting up and finding new partners. I do, however, have a problem with cheating, with inventing theological justification for telling your wife she’s not really your wife, and with portraying sane people as crazy to discredit them.

As I was reading about this, I came upon this facebook comment by KT Pridgen:

Why I believe Julie: Because I remember desperately trying to convince my pastor (and my now ex-husband’s boss) that I shouldn’t go on medication for bipolar disorder to try to save my marriage because I didn’t have bipolar disorder. I had never been diagnosed despite specifically asking my therapist to screen me after my ex-husband assured me that our marriage counselor had told him that I was bipolar.

In the same breath, he both unquestioningly accepted the narrative of my mental illness and demanded cold, hard evidence (pictures or walking in on them) when I told him I knew my ex-husband was having an affair. Love songs obviously written for her and sent to her via e-mail were not enough.

I believe Julie because it happened to me.

Now, do I know what happened for sure? No, I don’t. There are huge threads on the internet discussing this matter, and I haven’t had the time to wade through hundreds and thousands of comments. I also haven’t spoken with either Tony or Julie personally, and I haven’t read the divorce documents or relevant emails. What I will say is that I’ve read enough to have serious concerns about Tony, and that what Julie says about the way Tony distinguished between his “legal” marriage to her and his “spiritual” marriage to his lover seems completely in line with his later book, There Are Two Marriages.

But I don’t want this post to be about specific allegations or a specific progressive Christian leader. Instead, I want to talk about how we respond to allegations of abuse. Rachel Held Evans has long been a supporter of abuse victims. She has both talked the talk and walked the walk. I have long had a lot of respect for Rachel and her efforts to fight spiritual abuse and various forms of oppression in the church. And it is probably a consequence of how much I respect Rachel that I’ve been so disappointed by how she has responded to Julie’s allegations.

Remember what I said about how much easier it is to call out the bad things your opponent does than it is to call out bad things done by those in your own camp? I think that’s what’s going on here. Rachel isn’t afraid to call out abuse outside of her circle of emergent leaders, but now that abuse allegations touch someone within that circle, her response has been different.

Last week, a reader left this comment on her blog:

Hi Rachel, I posted this on your Facebook but also wanted to leave a comment here because it seems that you interact more here on your blog, and I wanted to make sure you hear me.

I saw your upcoming conference featuring women and got super excited … until I saw that you’re partnering with Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt for the event. This is surprising to me because you’ve always been an advocate for the abused and for victims, but Tony Jones had been accused by his ex wife of some serious things, including throwing her against a wall and dislocating her shoulder from its socket.

This happened many years ago (probably six?), and his ex wife tried for a long time to tell her part of the story, but was shut down every time by Jones’ pressuring of blog hosts, etc, every time she tried to talk. He even threatened law suits when the pressure of his position in the Emergent community didn’t work to make them delete her comments and block her participation.

A few months ago Julie left a comment on Naked Pastor’s blog, but instead of censoring her, he let her tell her story … for the first time ever. The comment thread on that post is very long, but worth the read, especially if you are familiar with the silencing tactics commonly employed by men in power against victims of abuse.

I’m hoping you are not aware of Julie’s story, and that is why you agreed to partner with her abuser. I also hope that this comment will be left up, and not taken down, because if it is (taken down), then although it pains me, I will have to assume knowing of Julie’s allegations, you are continuing to work with Tony Jones, which means you would be taking sides with the abuser (who wields a lot of power, I know – he’s giving you and others a platform to speak, after all).

Below is the link to the conversation. I truly hope you read through, and at the very least allow Julie to tell you her side of the story (since Jones denies it, and labels her as having a mental disorder)

Thank you.

How did Rachel respond? Like this:

I take abuse allegations very seriously, and if I had good reason to believe Tony was an abuser and these allegations were credible I wouldn’t work with him on a conference. But my personal experience with and diligent investigation of this situation has given me reason to doubt that this is the case. (The fact that I too was accused of being part of a massive EV coverup when this all happened before I was even published and not even remotely connected to EV raised some red flags from the start.) There’s always the chance I’m wrong, of course, but I’ve made the decision to continue participating in the conference with Nadia. To debate the circumstances of another couple’s divorce further, in this forum, would be unwise – legally and ethically – so I’m not going to comment on it again, and I’m going to have to moderate comments so that the comment section isn’t inundated with rumors, which I also take very seriously. There are other forums for such conversations. Part of advocating for abuse victims is to encourage them to work through the proper legal channels to achieve justice. I have done this consistently.

Five days later, Rachel added this:

By way of clarification, I don’t want to overstate my knowledge of this situation or involvement in it. I have spoken with neither Tony nor Julie about the details of their divorce, only reviewed some relevant documents and emails, not all of which are public. I am not a close associate of Tony’s, but work with many different event-planners in a given year.

I realize the conversation emerging around this situation on online forums has been incredibly triggering for some people, whose stories I take very seriously. However, I am not equipped to host or moderate a forum for discussing the details of a divorce and claims regarding mental health. In my advocacy for victims of abuse, I have consistently and adamantly encouraged working through the legal system and appropriate mediators to pursue justice, and I have consistently and adamantly discouraged both trial-by-church and trial-by-twitter.

What makes the “Why Christian?” event so important to me is that it is meant to empower and lift up women whose voices have not always been empowered and lifted up in the church. It has been disheartening to see those speakers harassed on social media, and I have a hard time understanding how diminishing their voices is helpful.

It’s important to me to do what I believe is right and ethical with the information I have and in the forum I moderate. In this endeavor, I humbly ask for your patience and grace.

Let’s review, shall we?

1. Rachel claims that she has carried out a “diligent investigation” of the situation, but then later clarifies that she has not actually spoken with Julie. In fact, it appears that no one has actually spoken with Julie. It’s odd that someone who does so much to support abuse victims would dismiss allegations of abuse even contacting the victim to hear her story straight from her.

2. Rachel says that Julie should work through the “proper legal channels” and “appropriate mediators.” This despite the fact that the legal system can be harsh and painful to victims, and despite the fact that the “appropriate mediators” is too often a code name for “people who cover these things up.” Have we learned nothing from the Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard affairs?

3. Rachel accuses people of “harassing” her and others on social media. What is this harassment? She does not give specifics, so it is possible she and others are receiving threats. What I have seen, though, is a variety of individuals begging Rachel to reconsider her dismissal of Julie’s allegations. This is not harassment. This is people using social media to voice concerns.

4. Rachel says that those who question the stance she and other female emergent leaders have taken are “diminishing” women’s voices. And yet, those who think Julie’s allegations should be given a fair hearing are largely women themselves, and Julie, too, is a woman. And besides, would Rachel really have her followers go easy on abuse allegations so as not to hurt “the cause”?

The sad result of Rachel’s response is that, going forward, abuse victims will have reason to question whether Rachel will support them, or their abusers. I know that many people have contacted Rachel both privately and publicly, and if I knew her personally I would reach out to her too. I can only hope that Rachel will realize that the way she is responding to Julie’s accusations is not unlike the way Gothard’s board responded to the allegations against him for far, far too long.

Now, perhaps Tony did not physically abuse Julie. Perhaps Tony has portrayed Julie as “batshit crazy” for the last six years because she is manipulative and needs therapy. Perhaps Tony did not tell Julie that he has a new “spiritual” wife. Perhaps Tony simply cheated on his wife, and then divorced her. But even if this is the case, allegations of abuse and wrongdoing should be taken seriously and not dismissed out of hand. (And frankly, telling people that someone who needs mental help is “batshit crazy” seems transparently problematic.)

[Note: In a statement written after this blog post, Tony stated that he did not begin a relationship with his now-wife, Courtney, until September 2008, after filing for divorce in August 2009.]

While it is easy to respond properly to abuse allegations made against your enemy, it is far, far harder to respond properly to abuse allegations made against someone you know and are close to. I get that. But if we are serious about calling out abuse and supporting victims, we have to be willing do this in every forum, including our own. We need to be able to call out bad patterns of responding to abuse allegations when they occur elsewhere without engaging in those patterns ourselves when things come closer to home.

I only hope Rachel Held Evans remembers that.

For additional reading, see R.L. Stollar’s post, What It Means to Take Abuse Seriously.

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